A Labour of Love

In Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Picard occasionally reminds outsiders, from other time periods, that the economic system of the 24th century differs from our earthly present. Money no longer exists; people no longer get paid; and material wealth is no longer the goal. One works to better oneself. Their needs: shelter, food, education, healthcare are a right and covered by the collective .

Although this is a fantastical concept and perhaps a controversial one, for it certainly reminds me of failed systems of the past, the idea has stayed with me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if regardless of who our parents were, or how much money we were born into, or what are personal interests were, regardless of it all we were all able to start at the same place? Every one of us would have the chance to work with purpose.

Lately, as we have gone through a shift in political leadership and national dogma I have been thinking: How can we as individuals, partners, and families learn to adapt our habits and leap to a future that will be better for ourselves and for the next generation?  How do we challenge our consumer selves to be more in tuned to the natural environment we need and the health we desire, yet with an economic system that all too often works against the majority of us. It is with these questions as well as an actual, immediate, personal need, that I have pivoted towards the concept of buying with thoughtfulness. I have this simple idea to look at everything–absolutely everything–that we consume in our day to day, and ask: Is there a better way?

However, I am also aware that what I wish to talk about pertains to the home; and, for me the subject of the “home” is unsettling. Depending on how you broach the subject, it can be personal, hurtful, and subsequently divisive. For, the home is the ultimate space, the homemaker is the ultimate role that is simultaneously placed on an unrealistically high pedestal and yet ultimately not valued. When I use the term “value” I use it in its purest monetary sense. To place a value on something is to place a price on something, and the labour that occurs within the home is valued at zero. In some ways, the work that currently occurs within the home is very similar to the work of Captain Picard and his contemporaries. As a society we place the utmost importance on the management of the home. There are whole cable channels, magazines, blogs dedicated to how our homes should look, how we should cook, and how we should raise our children. We work in our home to better ourselves. As well, like Captain Picard those who work in the home do not get compensated for it. However, unlike Picard, whose needs are well met (and more so if you check out his vacation episodes…ohlala) those who choose to work in the home are choosing to sacrifice themselves. They give their labour for nothing in return. Sure, one can be appreciated for the work they do; one can be shown love for the work that they do; however, if one is not paid for the labour they output then one cannot be a full participant in our current economic reality.

Our complicated relationship with “housework” is not happenstance nor is it a modern to mid-century phenomenon. In the past, as it is now, those in places of privilege often dictate society’s opinion of the day. At the turn of the 20th century, the popular view in terms of the home was that the woman should be the manager not the worker. Physical labour was devalued and the labour within the home was to be done discreetly and by servants. This was the popular thought of the day for the societal conditions of the day allowed it to be. Immigrants, in large numbers, were arriving in America (and Canada) and cheap labour was easy to be found. Many middle-class to upper-class households, were therefore able to afford a servant, so, it was rather convenient for these families to hold such values. However, for those families who required both parents to work or who could not afford a servant, well unfortunately for them, they had to toil in front of their family and debase the order of their home.

Yet, as time goes by our realities change. With the outbreak of World War 1 and the changing economic situation families of means were forced to adapt their views. In the 1910s, the term “the servant problem” arose. Well-to-do households were finding it harder to maintain their staff, as staff were able to go on and find other employment in sectors with better pay and better prestige. At the same time, citizens were asked to help in the war effort by rationing their food and other resources. Suddenly, families who maintained servants were shamed and housework became a patriotic duty.

The rigid conservation of food materials and the most complete elimination of household waste are objects of supreme national importance during this world crisis…I feel confident that the women of Canada will nobly rise to the occasion . . . She will do her bit…” W.J. Hanna – Food Controller

Simultaneously, as men were shipped out to fight overseas and women were asked to work more actively in their homes, a college degree in the  “Home Economics” department rose in popularity. Now, young women of means (of course) went off to school to learn the fundamentals of running a household through “pre-professional training, schedules, and standardization.” Now, I don’t mean to be too dismissive of this new development. However, I can’t help but think back to my own Home Ec. experience in grade nine baking cookies and sewing my own Koala Bear. Actually, we can thank Home Economics for our modern knowledge in food safety and nutrition. However, what the Home Economics community did do that, in my view, had a negative impact on how we view labour in the home was that it used the “language of professionalization” while effectively “deprofessionalizing” the work. Therefore, what used to be the work of a paid servant in certain households (however poorly paid and viewed) became the work of the unpaid female family members. More so, in order for the women to not feel like they were merely unpaid servants the Home Ec. community asserted that it was because of their “intelligence, genuine familial love, and professional education that made it impossible to compare her to a servant.” Thus, compliment them and remind them that they are doing this out of love, and therefore, payment need not be necessary. By introducing one’s love for one’s family and one’s patriotic duty for one’s country and intertwining those feelings with the labour of the home, it has almost made it impossible 100 years later for us as individuals or as a society to even imagine how to monetize this type of labour.

At a time when groups of us–gender neutral, for I believe this issue no longer needs to be divided along such lines, are re-connecting to the centrality that “housework” has on our well being I feel that we would be ignoring an underlying societal and economic issue if we did not recognize the impact that past dogmas has had on how we view these roles presently. And, if you are like me, and feel like this is an issue that deserves some thought then perhaps we should also broaden the conversation and ask ourselves to challenge the way we perceive labour in general. Is the Star Trek reality of de-linking money and labour as fantastical as it seems?

This past fall, I listened to a CBC Ideas episode with author, Paul Mason, discussing his book The End Of Capitalism. During the interview, Mason brought up the concept of the Basic Income as a tool to solve the employment and labour challenges of today and more importantly of the future. He and others have stated that our employment challenges will only worsen as technology replaces humans in our workplaces and mass unemployment will become a new reality. A Basic Income, which surprisingly is not a new concept, would cover the basic needs of all people. Allowing everyone the time and the space to innovate and to create, exponentially propelling our society into the future. Imagine the scenarios that would no longer exist. Most students will choose to study what interests them, instead of a subject they think would provide them a good, steady job. More people could make better investments in their own career paths.  More people could become entrepreneurs for the risk would not seem so daunting.  And, perhaps, most importantly, for what we are discussing today, of those who choose to work at home that labour would no longer be invisible and it would no longer be a sacrifice. A “homemaker” would get paid for their labour.

In February, the Ontario Government announced that it would launch a pilot project to test out the guaranteed basic income. Maybe the 24th century is not that far away after all.